Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sweet Potato Leaves

Yesterday while working through the bottomless pile of paperwork that obscures my desk, I got to surfing and ran across a mention of eating sweet potato leaves at Food Rockz. That inspired me to fire off an email to Beth Nowak of Mayfair Farm asking if she could bring me some sweet potato vines, which you see here, so that I could play with them.

Just for grins, I chiffonaded some of the tender leaves and cooked one batch for five seconds in clarified butter and another batch in bacon grease. The first batch tasted like clarified butter and the second like bacon grease. That's to say that there's probably a reason that sweet potato greens are not a highly sought after vegetable, but they're also perfectly edible and there's no reason you shouldn't try them.

I'll put the rest of them with some dish on tonight's menu.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Until just over a year ago, I'd never heard of Llapingachos—Ecuadoran potato and cheese cakes—until I read an article about them in Gourmet. I've been looking for a reason to make them, and last night the opportunity presented itself in the form of a vegetarian special for our menu. Here are a couple of orders of llapingachos on the table in the center of our line, ready to go out to tables, garnished with peanut sauce, red onion slaw, and local microgreens.

I've made enough potato cakes in my life, thousands, to know the basic ropes. But, before making my first batch of llapingachos, I did a little nosing around on the web, trying to understand just what differentiates llapingachos in the world of potato cakes. And it seems to be the addition of achiote and cheese to the potatoes.

Recipes differ widely on what kind of cheese to use and because of this, I can see that you basically use what you have in your grocery or refrigerator of the white, soft, melting variety. In my walk-in, just happen to have a 5-pound brick of queso quesadilla, a soft melting cheese used for, you guessed it, making quesadillas. Recipes call for, variously, Monterrey Jack, Münster, Mozzarella, or Fontina, so you know what to look for. Some recipes call for mixing the cheese into the potatoes and some call for stuffing the potato cakes with the cheese in the middle.

Recipes differ as to whether or not to use mealy russet-type potatoes or waxy potatoes, so you have to figure that it doesn't really matter. Some contain yellow onions, some red, some green, some only the whites of green onions. Does it really matter? Some contain cumin, some contain achiote* oil, some contain cilantro, and so forth and so on. Basically, it's a cheesy potato cake flavored with whatever you happen to want or like to use.

For my part, I want a potato with flavor, so I started with some local redskin fingerlings, which have a somewhat buttery flavor. I boiled and roughly mashed them skin-on for the color contrast of the skins in the cakes. I differ here, because all the recipes I have seen call for peeling the potatoes. But why? The skins on our fresh red fingerlings are not only pretty, but tasty as well.

To the potatoes I added green onions, achiote oil for color, salt, pepper, a dusting of red pepper flakes, and a fair amount of queso quesadilla. After a quick mix of the ingredients, I formed them into about 3-ounce cakes.

To accompany the llapingachos, I made a version of the classic peanut sauce called salsa de mani by cooking red onion, garlic, ground toasted cumin, and red chile flakes in achiote oil, then adding blended milk and peanut butter, and cooking until thick, about 2 minutes. I then seasoned with salt, pepper, lime juice, cilantro, and sriracha. Very tasty. I also made a quick curtido (slaw) of red onion, German Howard tomatoes, cilantro, chile serrano, salt, and lime juice.


I have seen in a lot of the recipes that working with llapingachos is tricky. I never thought of it that way because I have made so many thousands of potato cakes in my life that I have forgotten some of my initial potato cake disasters.

Adding too much oil, butter, or cream to the potatoes is to invite them to melt in your pan. Use just what you need to make a mash that will hold together; it's the same feel you need for making potato gnocchi.

If you're new to potato cakes, use russet potatoes. The higher starch content is more likely to give you better results. I used waxy fingerlings, but I've got a ton of experience at this.

Refrigerate the patties before cooking; they will be much more firm and easy to work with.

Moderate the heat in your pan. You need to get the patties warm through to the center without burning the crust and without the patties disintegrating.

And when working with llapingachos, you might want to use a non-stick pan to keep the cheese from, well, sticking.

Finally, if all else fails, lightly flour the cakes. That will help them form a crust and give a nice brown surface.

CIA has produced a short video that you might want to watch: http://www.ciaprochef.com/peanuts/peanuts-recipe-08.html

*Achiote oil is vegetable oil that you have warmed with achiote (annatto) seeds, to be found in most any Latino grocery. You may also find pasta de achiote (achiote paste) which is also a good starting point for making the oil. Personally, I avoid achiote powder; I just don't think it's good for anything.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms

We just received the first shipment of the year of chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus), also known as chicken mushrooms or sulfur shelf fungi. As you can see in the photo, the upper surface is generally a bright orange, while the bottom surface is a sulfur yellow, though these are much more beige than many I have seen in the past.

Coloration is highly variable (or there are many closely related species, I'm not sure). Local chickens tend to be more vanilla colored with bright saffron fringes. These came from our forager in Oregon.

I have read that the name chicken comes from the fact that the interior of the sliced fungus is colored exactly like cooked chicken breast, that it has a firm texture that resembles chicken breast, and that it has a flavor of lemony chicken. I don't find the chicken flavor: all I detect is bland mushroom that will take on whatever flavors you cook it with, making it a useful meat substitute, though I much prefer to showcase the mushroom on its own rather than have it play stand-in for something else.

When working with chickens, make sure that you harvest or buy the young, tender ones. Older ones are just too tough and fibrous for decent eating. Look closely for insect holes; sulfur shelves are highly prone to insect damage. These, while they look a little beat around the edges, are still quite tender and they also represent some of the largest specimens in the box we received, for ease of photography. The smaller ones are much nicer than these.

I'll keep adding ideas for using these mushrooms to this post as we work our way through the mushrooms at the restaurant. So far:

  • Chicken of the Woods and Chanterelles Baked under Brie

  • Chicken of the Woods Lasagne Puttanesca

  • Chicken of the Woods and Bacon Frittata

Friday, September 26, 2008

Do You Cook At Home?

I keep forgetting to add this question to the FAQs. I probably answered it five times in the dining room last evening alone.

I think most customers don't realize that for us chef/owners of restaurants, home is the place where we sleep between shifts at the restaurant. One Block West is open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, so that leaves just Sunday and Monday when I might cook.

Surely you've heard about the cobbler's children's shoes. Ask the chef's children about dinner.

Most of the time, I don't really want to cook on my day off. Also, I love to go out to eat at other restaurants, to sample different food and to catch up with their owners, so chances are good that we might go out one evening of Sunday or Monday.

But still, I do try to cook at least one night a week at home. The cooking tends to be very simplistic and very quick to prepare and clean up, especially on Mondays when I have been at the restaurant since 7:30am doing paperwork and am beat.

Dinner tends to be a couscous, a pasta, a pasta salad, a composed salad, a soup, fried rice, or something else with a lot of grains and vegetables and very light on the meat, if there is any at all.

Here are some posts about dinner at my house:

    Cooking in an Alien Kitchen
    What Does a Chef Eat on his Night Off?
    Dinner with Chef Ed

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Beet, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad

Beets. So many people claim that they hate them, but I'm not seeing a lot of evidence to support that claim. Of our vast repertoire of appetizers, this may be one of our all time best sellers and one that we have to run each time baby beets are in season.

We have a vast number of customers who cannot wait for beet season so that they can sample this salad. We made a version of this salad on the weekend for my mystery basket dinner and I heard two people say that they didn't like beets, but that they loved this salad. I have a customer who comes all the way to Virginia from Pittsburgh for this salad. This is the salad about which, as I posted earlier, a customer waxed quite poetic. And of all the TV shows I've done, this is the one that generated the most requests for the recipe.

So, although I hear you claiming that you don't like beets, are you sure you aren't protesting for form?


Hah! There isn't one! ;) Mix diced roasted beets with toasted walnuts and crumbled goat cheese and a splash of balsamic vinaigrette, perhaps some salt and pepper, and you're done.


This is a typical One Block West dish, in that it is very simple and relies utterly on the quality of the ingredients, of which there are precious few.

First, the beets must be small, very fresh, and you should roast them in a medium oven in aluminum foil until you can just pierce them to the center with a knife.

Then, toast the walnuts for maximum flavor.

Your goat cheese must be the best you can find. In the absence of a good local source, we use goat cheese from Vermont Butter and Cheese Company—it is a really solid product.

Ditto for the olive oil and balsamic vinegar from which you make the vinaigrette.

A grate of lemon zest into the beets works wonders. Ditto for a sprinkle of Craisins®.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Tonight, we ran Rack of Venison on the menu with a Hominy-Poblano Gratin and Mole Sauce. As we were plating the venison, I really started thinking about how much I love hominy and I ran to my office to grab my camera to record the plate presentation for posterity. Too bad the pictures looked like hell, all underexposed. Sigh, I still have way too much to learn about photography.

I wonder, is mine the only gringo restaurant to serve hominy?

As a kid, one of my very favorite foods was hominy and it remains so today. Until recently, I have not featured it on the menu at the restaurant because I hadn’t been able to find a good supply. That has changed as our local Latino community expands by leaps and bounds.

Growing up, I thought that hominy was a product of our local Scots-Irish Appalachian culture: it was rare, but not unheard of, to see a lye hopper outside a mountain cabin. Hominy is dried corn kernels soaked in a basic solution such as lye until the hard outer hull and germ come off the kernels. The kernels are rinsed thoroughly and cooked until soft. It was a do-it-yourself, poor man’s Appalachian foodstuff, or so I thought until I moved to Texas in my early 20s.

Once in Texas, partly because I was flat broke and partly because I love simple food, I discovered as many back-alley taquerias and bodegas as possible. Many was the morning that I would start my day at the local taqueria where Abuelita Gomez would always make sure that there were an extra two or three tortillas in my docena (dozen). Sometimes, when I had the money, I would eat dinner at one of these joints, sitting among the Mexican laborers and listening to, but not comprehending, their chatter. It was there that I discovered both menudo and posole, two of my favorite foods to this day. Subsequent trips to Sandia National Labs (don't ask; I can't tell) in Albuquerque showed me yet another form of posole, one that we celebrated in a past beer dinner.

Menudo is tripe soup, the traditional Northern Mexican hangover food. Although hominy in menudo is optional, it is the sine qua non of posole, a pork, red chile, and hominy stew of Sonoran origin. Posole is sometimes spelled pozole. Eating these two dishes caused me to realize that perhaps hominy was a lot more widespread than I grew up understanding.

As I started to research corn and corn products in Mexico, one resource was a very wonderful set of regional cookbooks put out by the Mexican government and written by very well-educated authors. Occasionally I would come across the phrase maíz nixtamalado. You recognize the tamal root, especially in its plural form tamales. Because I don’t speak Spanish, it took me a long time to understand that they were talking about hominy, which if dried and ground fine enough makes the masa dough from which we make both tortillas and tamales. I finally clued in that nixtamal means hominy.

The word nixtamal is clearly not of Spanish origin. Rather, it’s an indigenous term, telling me that hominy is an ancient food. And in fact, it is. Researchers have determined that peoples in Mesoamerica have been making hominy for around 10,000 years. Back to our Appalachian settlers: they learned about corn and how to make hominy from the local peoples: hominy is an Algonquin word.

Now I come to find out that we have also assimilated the word nixtamal into English: nixtamalization is the process of making hominy from dried corn kernels. (Who knew there were cereal scientists that studied such things?) While our early settlers used lye (sodium hydroxide), derived from soaking wood ashes in water, Mexicans used lime-water (calcium hydroxide) to the same effect. This process also converts some of the B vitamins in corn to a form that can be more readily absorbed by the body. So, not only is hominy more flavorful and easier to eat than dried corn, it’s healthier too.

Once the husk and the germ of the corn kernel are gone, the remainder is cooked until tender. The grains of hominy fluff out a bit, reminding me of solid popcorn. Of course, hominy can be white, blue, yellow, or pinkish, depending on the color of corn used. Once soft, hominy is canned or dried. Dried hominy, often called posole in the Sonoran desert (part of both the US and Mexico: cuisine knows no political boundaries), can either be cooked to soften it or ground. Ground hominy is called, in increasing levels of fineness, coarse grits, grits, and masa harina (or corn flour).

Finding hominy at retail has been challenging until recently. In the mercados and bodegas, the challenge is language. I would wager that the majority of Latinos have never heard of hominy by any name. Those that have call it variously: posole, mote (as in mote blanco), maíz en estilo mexicano, and by other names. Some American grocery stores carry American brands such as Bush’s (acceptable) and Manning’s (not so good) and sometimes the pan-Latino Goya brand (good but expensive). Now, Wal-Mart has started carrying the excellent Juanita’s brand in their Latino section (in the aisle labeled, ignorantly, Mexican). It even comes in restaurant-sized #10 cans (108 oz.), which makes me happy. And, now my specialty goods supplier sells me cases (six cans) of #10 cans, which makes me happier still.

The simplest way to cook hominy is to sauté it in bacon grease, with salt and liberal quantities of black pepper. This to me is outstanding breakfast food, but we use it in the restaurant as a base for ossobuco of pork as well. I also love to use hominy in a mix I’ve started calling sofrito: poblanos, onions, plátanos or hominy, cumin, garlic, green onions, tomatoes, cilantro, all fried in achiote oil, with some chiffonaded collards thrown in at the last minute. This makes an outstanding accompaniment to pan-Caribbean cooking, and it wasn’t terrible when we served sliced, grilled bison ribeye over it recently, as many customers will attest. And of course, hominy is de rigueur in any pork-based, red chile stew.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dinner with Chef Ed

Congratulations to Bill Smith of Boyce who was the winner of our drawing to attend the Mystery Basket Dinner at my house last evening. We had a great time and we'll be doing it again on a more regular basis. Here's a photo of the wonderful mushroom and asparagus pasta that we made.

The dinner format was that each couple attending the dinner provided three ingredients for the mystery basket from which we all made dinner. I provided the basic proteins and the wine and supplemented the mystery ingredients with things from my pantry. The mystery ingredients we ended up with were:

penne pasta
Thai rice stick
Parmigiano cheese
Italian parsley
Thai basil
piccolo basil
baby spinach
baby arugula
heirloom tomatoes
Jalapeño peppers
sambal oelek
portabella mushrooms
button mushrooms
green beans
chocolate chunks

I contributed shrimp, elk sausage, fresh herbs, fish sauce, goat cheese, walnuts, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, ginger, butter, heavy cream, cinnamon, and coconut milk.

I don't think I spent more than five minutes throwing together this menu. I started sketching it after three or four couples arrived and modified it slightly to incorporate the new ingredients that the later arriving guests brought. I wanted to keep things simple so that everyone could participate.

Roasted Beet, Goat Cheese, and Walnut Salad on Baby Spinach and Baby Arugula with Balsamic Vinaigrette

Red Thai Curry of Shrimp, Eggplant, and Jicama on Rice Stick

Penne with Mushrooms and Asparagus in Rosemary-Garlic Cream

Roasted Green Beans, Heirloom Tomatoes, and Elk Sausage (see photo)

Semolina and Chocolate Chunk Cookies with Ginger-Cinnamon Pear Confit

We had three cutting boards going simultaneously and divided up the work. Shawn made the beet salad, Jaime made the penne with help from Rob, the elk sausage was a team effort especially in stringing the beans, I made the Thai curry, Bill made the cookies and pear confit, and Daisy the killer beagle kept the floor clean.

It was a great party and we only broke one wineglass! Keep coming to the restaurant for your chance to participate in the next dinner.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cross Contamination

A couple days ago, I was sitting on the restaurant deck eating lunch with the art director of a magazine after a photoshoot—we couldn't let all that good food go to waste, now could we?—and during the course of our conversation, he asked, "How antagonistic is your relationship with the Health Department?"

His question seems to be informed by books he's read and stories from the city where he lives. I think I surprised him when I replied that I had never found the Health Department to be against us, that they have always approached me and my restaurant from the perspective of giving us guidance about how to handle food safely, about how to apply the ivory tower "Health Code" to real world restaurant conditions.

We seem to have a really good working relationship, even though we've had the occasional skirmish over the years. The relationship with each inspector has been different, but each has operated from the perspective that we are not trying to handle food badly, that we really do have a vested interest in not harming customers. It has never been an us versus them thing.

It was my guest's turn to surprise me by asking, "Restaurant kitchens are a lot safer than most home kitchens, aren't they?" In the restaurant world, our equipment, procedures, and training are designed to help prevent foodborne illness. So, when I leave the restaurant world where we take all this for granted, I am often shocked by what I see in home kitchens. I have seen the most egregious food handling practices in home kitchens, so I had to agree with him.

This led into a discussion of cross contamination and other terribly unsafe food handling practices that I have witnessed in home kitchens. Simply put, cross contamination is the transfer of pathogens from one food substance to another. More specifically, we're talking about the transfer of pathogens to a food that will not be cooked sufficiently to kill those pathogens, thus greatly increasing the risk of becoming sick.

For example, if you were to cut raw chicken on a cutting board (chicken is notorious for being contaminated with Salmonella) and then you were to chop a salad on the same cutting board without first sanitizing it (Unthinkable? I've seen it!), you would put everyone eating the salad at risk of becoming ill. More frequently, cross contamination is not this obvious. Picture the same scenario, in which the cutting board has been sanitized, but in which you use the same knife, without sanitizing it.

At the restaurant, we use color-coded cutting boards to help prevent cross contamination. As you see in the photo, we break down meat on the red board, poultry on the yellow board, seafood on the blue board, and ready-to-eat foods and vegetables on the green board. Notice that we store the boards by hanging them with good air circulation to ensure that they dry properly.

I'm sure you don't have enough room to store four cutting boards at home (I surely don't, not even in my vast kitchen), so that's not an option for you. But here are a few simple things you can do to prevent cross contamination in your kitchen:

  • Be aware that cross contamination is an issue.

  • Wash your hands and knives frequently in hot soapy water.

  • Plan your cutting such that you prep vegetables and ready-to-eat food before raw proteins.

  • Make a sanitizer solution of a capful of household bleach per gallon of water and wipe surfaces frequently with that solution.

  • Store raw proteins in your refrigerator well wrapped so that they cannot leak.

  • Separate raw proteins in your refrigerator such that if they leak, they cannot contaminate anything else.

You can learn more at www.foodsafety.gov.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Roulade of Wild Boar Rack

I really enjoy working with wild boar. It's as easy to use as domestic pork and as long as you remember that it is considerably leaner than domestic pork, you can treat it in any manner that you would domestic pork. Here is a recipe that I designed as an autumn show piece. It's a lot of work, but it wows customers.


This dish is a bone-in roulade of an entire rack of wild boar, stuffed with a wild boar farce which would make a terrific terrine, if baked separately in a mold. A portion is two chops cut off the rack, seared and roasted à la minute, and cut into individual chops at plating.

I have selected garnishes which reinforce the essential earthiness and gaminess of boar. The farce gets some earthiness from a porcini mushroom syrup, whose flavor I chose to echo in the porcini risotto under the chops.

While the chops are resting, we add chanterelle mushrooms to the roasting pan. We certainly could have used fresh porcini, but we have gorgeous golden chanterelles on hand now. From the scraps from fabricating the racks, we make a boar jus with which we deglaze the pan containing the mushrooms. We mount the pan sauce with sweet butter. The mushrooms and pan sauce become the second garnish.

Finally, the dish needs some bitterness to balance the richness of the meat, risotto, and pan sauce. I chose to briefly braise escarole and then finish it in olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper flakes. Any bitter green would serve admirably in this role.

You can see that this dish is not for the faint of heart—considering the labor in fabricating the racks and making the jus, not to mention the attention that the dish takes on the line with three à la minute garnishes—but it sure makes a great statement in the dining room.

For a wine to accompany this dish, I would work with the essential sweetness of the boar by choosing a fruity, modern-style Syrah that also has peppery aspects to echo the green peppercorns in the stuffing. From our wine list, I would choose the Thorn-Clarke "William Randell" Shiraz Barossa 2004. With its dark fruit, white pepper, cedar, and eucalyptus notes, it will pair outstandingly with this dish.

Roulade of Wild Boar Rack

1 double cut* roulade boar chop
salt and pepper
12 small chanterelle mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced shallots
fresh thyme leaves
4 fluid ounces boar jus
soft unsalted butter
8 fluid ounces porcini risotto
6 escarole leaves, blanched and braised

*We use double cut chops because they hold together much better than single chops and they do not overcook nearly as easily.

Season the double boar chop with salt and pepper and sear on all surfaces in a hot, oven proof pan. Transfer the pan to a hot oven and roast to 130 degrees Fahrenheit*. Remove the chop from the roasting pan and let it rest. The internal temperature will come up to about 135-140 in 4-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the chanterelles, shallots, and thyme to the roasting pan and sauté for a couple of minutes. Deglaze the pan with the boar jus and reduce until syrupy. Swirl in the butter.

Mound the porcini risotto in the well of a large soup plate. Slice the boar chops in half and lay them against the risotto mound, crossing the bones. Garnish with the braised escarole. Spoon the chanterelles and pan sauce around. Garnish with variegated sage.

*Because the roulade contains comminuted (ground) meat, the Food Code says you should cook it to an internal temperature of 165F. Naturally, you don't want to ruin your wild boar by doing this, so depending on your local code, you may have to place a warning on your menu.

Fabricating the Rack

Working with racks takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, the racks of all animals are pretty much the same. It takes me about 20 minutes to clean, french, butterfly, and roll each 8-bone rack. Here is a brief pictorial essay on fabricating a wild boar rack into a roulade.

If you examine a rack, you'll see that it has an upper layer of meat and fat, the cap, separated from the ribeye by a tough layer of silverskin. This photo is of a rack as it comes out of the box, cap on.

The first step is to remove this cap and silverskin carefully with a boning knife. Reserve all the trimmings from the rack to use to make boar jus.

After removing the cap, deep french the bones. The tips of the racks are minimally frenched when you receive them. Once you remove the cap, you'll see a line of fat running horizontally along the base of the bones. Cut in between the bones down to this line of fat with a sharp knife to remove any meat between the bones. Reserve this trim for the jus. With a utility knife, scrape all the tissue off the bones from the line of fat to the tip of the bone on all sides. Here is the fully cleaned rack, ready for stuffing.

Next, butterfly the rack. You want to slice the meat so that it unrolls into a thin, even layer as in this photo. With practice, this becomes easier. If you are not confident in your knife skills, you might want to practice butterflying cheap pork loin before attempting an expensive rack. Note that each rack has a small end and a large end. You will have to make the meat thinner on the small end than on the large end so that it rolls out into a neat rectangle.

To stuff each rack, you'll need about 3/4 pound of wild boar farce. Spread the farce on the butterflied rack, with a thicker layer on the small eye end such that the roulade is uniformly sized when you roll it. Leave a margin all the way around the edges; the stuffing will spread as you roll the roulade.

Start rolling the roulade as shown here by rolling just a little bit of the meat back on itself. The smaller and tighter this first bit, the tighter the spiral and the nicer the roulade will look.

Continue rolling all the way back to the bone. Notice that the meat is even in diameter all the way across the rack, so that each customer gets an equal portion of product by weight. The small end will contain more stuffing and the larger end will contain less, but all chops will be the same size.

Next, using butchers twine, tie the roulade. There are all manner of techniques that will work. I just make a loop in the end of the twine, slide it over one of the end bones, and wrap between each bone, making a hitch around the bone before moving on. The hitch helps hold the chop together when you slice it off the rack.

Wild Boar Farce

This is a classic forcemeat. Mix thoroughly all the ingredients except the boar in a large bowl to ensure even distribution, then add the boar. The best way that I have found to mix the forcemeat is to glove up and do it by hand. The paddle blade of the mixer tends to heat the forcemeat and can make it tough.

1 fluid ounce porcini broth reduction
2 large eggs
1/2 cup/4 fluid ounces heavy cream
1/4 cup/2 fluid ounces tawny Port
1 cup/4.5 ounces shelled pistachios
2 tablespoons/1 ounce green peppercorns
1 cup/4 ounces shallots, minced and sweated
1 cup/4 ounces diced pancetta
3 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon pimentón agridulce
5 pounds ground wild boar

Porcini Broth Reduction

1.5 ounces dried porcini
16 fluid ounces hot water

Pour hot water over porcini and allow to rehydrate in a warm place for twenty minutes. Pour 8 fluid ounces of the resulting broth into a sauce pan and reduce until syrupy, yielding about one fluid ounce of porcini broth reduction. Reserve the rehydrated porcini for another use.

Boar Jus

Dice all boar scraps. Brown the boar and half its weight of mirepoix in a hot pan. Continue until all surfaces are browned. Add water to cover, deglaze the pan, and simmer for 60 minutes or until you have a well flavored jus. Pass through a chinois and defat. Reserve for service.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Name Droppers

I always get tickled by name droppers like the fellow who booked a reservation with me tonight and proceeded to tell me on the phone what good buddies he and Chef Ed are. I guess we're going to catch up on old times tonight when he comes in. Too bad I have no idea who he is.

Seriously, if you have to drop the chef's name while booking a table, you probably don't really know the chef, do you? And if you were a really close friend, wouldn't you be calling the chef's cell phone?

One other amusing story: we were holding our daily pre-dinner meeting when a woman came in wanting a donation—another in an endless series of people asking for handouts. She handed me some information and then proceeded to humiliate herself in front of the entire staff by telling me how well she and Chef Ed were acquainted and what good friends they were. She had no clue that she was addressing Chef Ed, nor did I ever clue her in. Do you think I donated to her charity?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

How Slow Is It?

Gee, who would have figured that 9/11 would be slow? ;) Not me. I should be in the kitchen cooking, instead of blogging. It's so slow we have to entertain ourselves, witness Rasta Chef here. At least we're having fun.

This begs the question, "Do you really want this guy near your food?"

On Love and Marriage

A customer just sent me the following note:

"If I wasn't already married and there had been a preacher in the house, I would've married the beet, walnut and goat cheese salad."

This so reminds me of years ago! One of my daughters, when she was a toddler, would exclaim, “I want to get married with it!” each time she would encounter some food that she really liked. Thanks for the memories!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Picpoul de Pinet

I got an alert from one of my wine vendors today stating that their supply of Picpoul is getting very low, which is not a good thing for us because we go through a lot of it, but not because customers order it very often.

Customers don't order it for a lot of reasons: it's the cheapest wine on the list (and therefore somehow inferior to more expensive wines, goes their thought process); they don't know how to pronounce it (peek-pool); they never heard of it (that's the reason for this blog post); or, it's not Pinot Grigio (the new Chardonnay, the wine everybody asks for without any consideration of the list).

Picpoul is a very old wine from the Midi in France, just inland from the beautiful Mediterranean fishing village of Sète (aka the Venice of the Languedoc), and one of the best whites from that region. It's entitled to AOC Coteaux du Languedoc status, and will probably gain its own AOC over the next few years. Picpoul is thought to be native to the Languedoc. In a day when most everyone plants grapes from elsewhere, it's refreshing to taste a wine from a grape grown on its native turf.

It's a great fresh, floral, fruity wine with excellent acid balance and pairs delightfully with light fare and seafood. I especially enjoy it with cheeses. Moreover, it's priced very attractively even with the dollar being pounded by the Euro.

So, why do we go through so much if customers don't order it? We cook with it because it has just the right balance of fruit and acid at a great price.

And here's a trick question: what grapes are in Picpoul de Pinet? The name's right on the label, but the official spelling of the grape is Piquepoul Blanc, same pronunciation.

Picpoul is one of the great underappreciated value wines from the south of France. Give it a try some time. For more reading, refer to the official Picpoul de Pinet web site.

That's Not an Orange!

Over the weekend and in somewhat of a mad rush, I grabbed a sack of oranges from Costco with which to make an orange salad for my guests on Sunday.

As I am wont to do, I put anyone in range of the kitchen to work on dinner and one of the guests was set to peeling and slicing the oranges. As soon as she had cut into the first one, she told me, "This is not an orange."

I looked at it and sure enough, it was not. It had a very thick skin and the flesh was very juicy with segments that separated fairly easily in the manner of a clementine or tangerine. And in my haste to get home with the oranges, I totally overlooked the telltale nipple on the bottom of the fruit.

And on closer inspection, the bag that I grabbed read Mineola, which is a variety of tangelo, a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine. I've eaten tangelos before, but only out of hand, generally peeled and eaten by segments like a tangerine.

This is the first time that I have made them into a salad and a fine salad it was. I share the recipe idea with you here:

Orange Salad

oranges, peeled and sliced
salt and pepper
pine nuts, toasted
mint, finely sliced en chiffonade
feta cheese, crumbled
extra virgin olive oil

Arrange the oranges on a platter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Scatter pine nuts, mint, and feta cheese over to your liking. Drizzle with honey and extra virgin olive oil.

For a more savory salad, I often scatter pitted olives over. Often I substitute either pistachios or almonds for the pine nuts. For a sweeter dessert course salad, I sometimes omit the feta cheese. And sometimes I scatter pomegranate seeds over. As you can see, this is a very free form salad that you can mold to your tastes and the ingredients on hand.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hurts So Good!

From time to time, I donate private cooking lessons and dinner to various organizations to auction for a fundraiser. This weekend, I did dinner for eight and the high bidders wanted me to demonstrate dishes with lamb ("but not chops"). For some reason, I was in the mood for North African food or other Arab-inflected food, so I cooked up a tagine, a couscous, a couple of other dishes, and a big batch of harissa.

Harissa is a common red chile-based table sauce or condiment in North Africa (and naturally in the south of France because of the immigrants from North Africa). Although it is available commercially, I can make a quart of it in less than two minutes from ingredients that I already have on hand in my pantry and it tastes better than any canned product I’ve ever tasted. I truly love harissa and am always looking for a chance to introduce newcomers to it.

I don't think any of my guests were familiar with harissa, based on the questions they were asking. One of them said, "this tastes like hot sauce with flavor!" I noticed at first everyone was being very careful about the harissa—it is very spicy—but that most everyone kept tasting and tasting it. Yes, it hurts so good!

This is my personal spice mix scaled to non-restaurant proportions—adjust it to your taste. Also, I never measure anything; I just eyeball the ingredients and then adjust the seasoning depending on my mood.

2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 cup sambal oelek* (or other crushed chile paste)
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon pimentón (smoked paprika)
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Toast the seeds in a pan over medium flame, tossing or stirring, until warm and fragrant. Grind half the seeds immediately in a spice mill. Mix the whole seeds, the ground seeds, and all the other ingredients, then taste for seasoning. Excellent with couscous, lamb, chickpeas, eggplant, and so forth. Tastes better after a day or so in the refrigerator.

*Sambal oelek is not traditional. In Africa, rehydrated dried red chiles (or sometimes fresh red chiles) are ground in a mortar. I just skip that step and use Huy Fong's sambal oelek, which we buy by the gallon. Nor is pimentón authentic. But many times harissa is made from chiles dried over a smoky fire, as are the peppers that are ground to become pimentón.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Cake Cutting Fee

Last evening a group booked a table to celebrate a birthday (thank you!). Earlier in the day, they called to ask if they could bring a cake. Our standard response is to offer to make a special cake, if we know far enough in advance.

This party called about the cake at around 4:30 pm for a 6:00 pm reservation. (Again, thanks to them for calling in advance and not just bringing the cake in without warning.) Because we did not have time to make a cake or other special dessert, our standard response is that we charge a cake cutting fee.

Most customers are not happy about this cake cutting fee and choose to eat dinner with us and eat their cake back at home after dinner, which is what this party did. Wise choice and thanks again to them.

Of course, there are customers who call many days in advance to discuss bringing in a very special cake (one that we could not do, mostly for sentimental reasons) for their event. We generally waive the fee, gladly I might add—usually we never even broach the topic. But the bulk of customers who want to bring a cake are trying to save money at our expense.

The bottom line for us is that we are in business to make money. If you bring a cake into the restaurant, you not only deprive us of dessert sales, but you also occupy a table that we could potentially reseat to generate more revenue. On top of that, you're using our china and silverware without paying your share of the cost of purchase, the cost of breakage, and the labor to wash and polish it.

Moreover, there is the aspect of insult. We, especially those of us who make the pastries, find it insulting that someone would bring in a pastry from out of house. Usually, it's a $10 Wal-Mart sheet cake made without any artistry or care; it's just a commodity. We take extreme pride in our food and it's painful when customers don't appreciate what we do.

I'm sure most customers never consider these issues, which is why I am bringing them up here.

Being in the hospitality business puts us in the unique situation of having to deal with people bringing food in from the outside to consume in our restaurant. You would never bring your own auto parts to the car dealer for repairs, would you? Would you bring your own bottle of bourbon to a bar and expect to be served? So, why would you bring a cake to a restaurant and expect to be served?

Bottom line for us: please don't bring a cake to our restaurant unless we've discussed it beforehand. We would find it rude and insulting.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What are Maryland Crab Cakes?

I get asked from time to time in the dining room if our crab cakes are Maryland-style. I don't know. I'm a Virginia boy who spent the summers of his youth on our end of the Chesapeake Bay crabbing and eating crabs. What do I know about Maryland?

Truth be told, I also lived in Maryland for several years and my wife was a resident in Baltimore, so you would think that I would know a Maryland crab cake when I ate one. Not so. Around here, we don't find it necessary to label our crab cakes.

But I do have to say that I had the worst crab cakes of my life at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore: so loaded with red Bell peppers and Old Bay that I couldn't taste the crab. I know that this is not what Maryland crab cakes are all about.

My crab cakes are very simple: crab, celery, parsley, white pepper, salt, egg, panko, and mayonnaise. End of story. And they are fantastic and probably representative of what the rest of the US calls Maryland crab cakes.

So, dear readers, what are Maryland crab cakes? And, what other kinds of crab cakes are there?

Third Annual Harvest Dinner

On Thursday, August the 28th, we put on our third annual Harvest Dinner honoring the hard work and outstanding products of Beth and Gene Nowak at Mayfair Farm. Beth and Gene supply us the bulk of our produce here at the restaurant and this is our way of saying thanks to them.

I decided about three weeks ago to do a yellow gazpacho this year—I try never to repeat a dish from year to year—so I let that Spanish dish set the course for the remaining menu.

The first year that we did this menu, I told nobody that it was to be an entirely vegetarian meal and I surprised (very pleasantly) a bunch of carnivores. Since then, we've advertised the dinner as vegetarian.

Gazpacho Amarillo
Yellow Gazpacho with Poblano Crema and Micro-Celery
Castillo Perelada Cava NV
Relleno de Flor de Calabacita
Beer Battered Squash Bloom Stuffed with Queso Blanco; Salsa Verde
Palacio de Feffiñanes Albariño Rias Baixas 2006
Taloa de Maiz Fresco con Tomate
Fresh Corn and Blue Cornmeal Cake; Fresh Tomato; Herbed Goat Cheese Mousse
Tres Ojos Rosado Calatayud 2007
Patatas y Judias Verdes
Roasted Potatoes and Green Beans with Onions, Olives & Rosemary
Finca la Emperatriz Rioja Crianza 2003
Tortilla de Pimientos
Baked Omelette of Corno di Toro Peppers, Red Onions,
and Everona Dairy Sheep’s Cheese; Romesco Sauce

Tres Ojos Garnacha Calatayud 2006
Frutas con Hueso al Horno; Natillas
Baked Stone Fruits; Cinnamon Crème Anglaise; Semolina Cookie

I always visit the tables after these dinners trying to get a sense for what the customers liked, disliked, and how the wine pairings worked. My sense was that this year, the dish called Patatas y Judias Verdes (potatoes and green beans) was the crowd favorite, which really surprised me because this was probably the most unusual dish on the menu.

One of the customers asked me where this dish came from and I had to tell him that I am not entirely sure. Often dishes just come into my mind and I go cook them, as I did this one. I do know that once I saw the baby red, white, and yellow potatoes at the market, patatas bravas popped into my mind, most probably because I had just had them at Mas, a tapas bar in Charlottesville. Patatas bravas are a classic tapa of browned potatoes, sprinkled with salt, and served with or mixed with a spicy sauce.

At the market, I also saw some really pretty small green beans, so I brought them home. I'm not sure how or why I decided to marry the beans and the potatoes, but many, many Western cultures have bean and potato dishes. Boiled new potatoes and green beans, for example, seems to be a tradition in the Southern US, although it was not in my family.

I have also been on a roasted green bean kick this year ever since I left some beans in the oven far too long and they shrivelled up worse than Szechuan string beans. The flavor of these beans was remarkable.

So there you have it. I roasted whole green beans in olive oil, salt and pepper until they shriveled, about 90 minutes for 10 pounds of beans. And I quartered and roasted all those baby potatoes separately with olive oil, salt and pepper until well browned on all the cut surfaces. Then at service we mixed the beans and potatoes with lots of mixed pitted olives, garlic, fresh rosemary from the plant outside the restaurant's front door, and crushed red pepper flakes. This all went into a hot oven for twenty minutes or so to reheat. Et voilà!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

So You Want to be a Chef?

I got really angry at a customer today. It doesn't happen very often because I'm pretty good at shrugging off things. Excuse me for a second while I vent; I couldn't vent at the customer.

On our lunch menu, we have a pasta called Ed's Pasta, named for me because it is my favorite pasta. It's a simple pasta really, just tomatoes, artichoke hearts, capers, browned garlic, hot pepper flakes, basil and white wine. Each ingredient in the dish is there for a particular purpose and the quality of the dish depends on the quality of the ingredients.

A female diner ordered Ed's Pasta for lunch today without tomatoes, which to me is unthinkable. The tomato is the sine qua non of the dish, the essential element, contributing flavor, color, and acidity. My initial reaction on getting the ticket was, "This is going to be boring!" But since I'm in the hospitality business, I didn't go try to talk her out of it; I just cooked it like she requested.

But she crossed the etiquette line when she told her server that the result was "bland." No kidding! Just what you asked for. That's why I'm the chef and you're not.

If you ask for changes to a dish on someone's menu, you have no right to complain when you don't like the result.

There, I feel better already.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Read Much?

Today as I was sitting in my office laboring away on Labor Day, as every other Monday, I heard the front door chime go off at 11:15.

I assumed it was my children for whom I was cooking lunch on their last day of freedom before the dreaded school year starts tomorrow. Aside—I know you're dying to know—We had a frittata of local eggs, chorizo, local tomatoes, local red peppers, pimentón, garlic, thyme from the plant in front of the restaurant, and local sheep's milk cheese similar to but better than Manchego.

Aside aside, back to the front door chime. Because I thought it was the girls and because I was in the midst of some bookkeeping, I was in no hurry to get to the front. Bookkeeping at a good stopping point, I stepped from my lighted office into the very black hallway—no sense in wasting electricity on lighting the restaurant on a day we're not open—and the light contrast left me unable to see for a moment.

Once my eyes became accustomed to the dark and I got to the front, I could see two elderly ladies poking about the nearly pitch dark dining room trying to find someone to seat them. When I cheerfully informed them that we were closed on Mondays, one blurted out a bit rudely, "Well, the door was unlocked."

I clamped a muzzle quickly on my very sarcastic mouth—the possibilities for very snide retorts to her statement are nearly endless—and reminded her that despite being closed to the general public, people do need to come and go: the postman, delivery drivers, tourists walking by who want to book tables, the pest control guy, the ladies that take care of our flowers, our electrician, etc.

Just to reassure myself that the front door is very clearly posted with our hours of business, I took my camera outside. Yep, the sign is still there, still legible, but largely unread by John Q. Public.

A lot of would be customers get semi-hostile when they arrive in the dining room on a Monday only to discover that we're closed. I know that they're only venting at their own failure to check our hours before leaving for the restaurant, but still I'm no different than anyone else: I don't enjoy invective aimed at me any more than you do, even if it really isn't intended for me.

I try my best to be tolerant by putting myself in their shoes, but I keep coming back to the fact that not only can I read, but I do read. I always scan the door of any restaurant that I am about to enter to see if they are in fact open and if they honor my credit cards, as I don't carry cash.

While I am dishing on customers—yes, you readers love it; the more dirt on customers in the blog post, the more frequently the post is read!—here are two more amusing incidents of a similar nature. Before I got in the restaurant business, if I had read about these two incidents, I would have thought that the author were fibbing. But as the saw goes, the truth is much stranger than fiction.

Each year in our town, we host the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, held the week leading into the first weekend in May, to celebrate the beginning of our local apple growing season. Naturally, the apples have already bloomed before the first of May, but never mind. And with fierce competition from both real estate development and Chinese apples, the apple industry is not thriving. Nonetheless, the first weekend in May sees 250,000 to 500,000 people descend on our town of 25,000 to watch our famous parades and celebrate with us.

Because of our location on a back alley, because visitors to the festival are conditioned to want corn dogs, fried confections, blooming onions, and sundry other junk from the myriad street vendors, and because the bulk of our customers are either out of town or are holding or attending one of vast numbers of private parties, we get no traffic that week. 10,000 people walk past our store and not one will come in, unless to use the restrooms.

So, we close out of self-defense to cut our losses and use that week to recuperate and get work done on the restaurant. One year we had the dining room torn apart to paint, with booths jammed into the entry foyer so tight that it was nearly impossible to squeeze by. In the midst of painting one afternoon, I went down the hall to the restroom and when I returned to the dining room, there was a foursome of elderly ladies seated at a table draped in a dropcloth, demanding to be served. How they managed to miss the closed sign on the front door, negotiate the obstacle course to a table, and sit at a draped table without concluding that we were closed is absolutely beyond my comprehension!

Another year, I was on the deck painting the fence when two ladies walked up to the front door, which was posted with a sign stating that we were closed for the week. One lady said, “Oh look, they’re closed!” And the other replied, “Let’s go in and see if they really mean it.” And they proceeded to go inside. Idiots.